Chelsea's dip in form has allowed Manchester City and United to get away and has set up Sunday week's Etihad derby as a crucial title showdown
Let's forget Chelsea's impressive start to the season, shall we, because it already seems a distant memory at Stamford Bridge. With a six-point gulf between City in second and the next-placed teams in the Premier League, Chelsea and West Bromwich Albion, the title race seems to be resolving itself into the two-horse affair everyone predicted it would be before Roberto Di Matteo's new signings clicked so smoothly.
There is still time for Chelsea to climb back into the reckoning, as long as Rafael Benítez can find someone to put the ball in the net and help ease the pressure piling up on him, though it already appears that Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal have no hopes higher than a Champions League finish while West Bromwich and Everton have just had bright starts put into perspective. Right at this moment it appears the title is going to stay in Manchester, and with United one point ahead of their neighbours going into the weekend fixtures the derby at the Etihad the following Sunday could be a showdown of some significance.
Given home advantage, unbeaten status and their record of two league wins against United last season, City will probably start favourites, though first they have the tricky visit of Everton to get out of the way. Tricky because in six attempts since he took over from Mark Hughes in 2009 Roberto Mancini has seen only one league victory against Everton, at home last season. The other five games were won by David Moyes's team, which means City players will not be taking anything for granted on Saturday .
"We want to be within touching distance of United when we play them in the derby, but it's a massive game for us first against Everton," Gareth Barry explained. "We always seem to find it difficult against them, so if we can get a positive result we will go into the derby extra confident."
Taking recent history and Everton's form into account a draw might be considered a positive result, yet Barry, like everyone else at City, realises draws must be turned into wins if United are to be overhauled. Unbeaten City are a point behind rivals who have already lost on three occasions, and if the title race is going to be as tight as it was last time then every draw means ground lost rather than a point gained.
"We were worried we might get another draw at Wigan but we managed to step it up after half-time," Barry said after their 2–0 win. "We looked pretty solid in defence but we weren't creating too much. It was important to get the first goal and it could be good for Mario Balotelli as well. He could go on a run now, he scored some massive goals for us last season and anyone who knows him will tell you he doesn't lack confidence."
Mancini is not short of confidence either, coolly sending on a defender in place of Sergio Agüero late in the game and trusting in Balotelli and those already on the pitch to break the deadlock while Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko were kept in reserve for the challenges to come. That performance probably left City fans more sanguine about the derby than their United counterparts, who were relieved to see their side take the lead for a change, against West Ham United, but then had to sit through 89 minutes of uninspired tedium.
"It wasn't a classic," Michael Carrick admitted. "We weren't at our best and we didn't produce much flowing football or create many chances. A clean sheet is the biggest plus we can take from the game; it gives us something to build on because if you don't concede a goal you don't have to keep coming from behind. We've been doing that too often, making things harder than they should be. We would like to get back to where we were a year or two ago when we were starting games really well and killing teams off really early."
If that is the key to title success then neither Manchester club have managed it too often this season. The perception is that both have been playing well below their best, rarely outclassing opponents, with City not finding goals or wins as easy to come by as last season and United constantly putting themselves under pressure through defensive lapses.
Both sides have attacking talent to spare, though if defensive security is going to be a factor in the derby Mancini appears to have found a settled central partnership in Vincent Kompany and the 19-year-old Matija Nastasic. Even though Joleon Lescott is back to full fitness he did not even make the squad for Wigan. It was Kolo Touré who came on when late cover was needed, and Nastasic played well enough to show why he has started all of City's last eight matches. The victory produced their sixth clean sheet in eight Premier League games, and with just two goals conceded in October and November, as against nine in the debit column for United, there is no question who enters the derby with the meanest defence.
"If we can keep the clean sheets and the unbeaten record going for as long as possible it can only help," Barry said. "I think we got to a similar stage unbeaten last season, but we haven't got as many points this time. We need to win as many games as possible, obviously, but touch wood, the defence is looking solid again. We need to keep that up. Matty [Nastasic] has had a great run of games, and considering he only came at the end of the transfer window he is looking a fully fledged Premier League player now.
"Anyone who comes into the Premier League is bound to find their first few starts difficult, but he has come through that. It is a different game to what he has been used to, but his form has steadily improved."